Arabic Lessons

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December 20th 2004
Published: December 20th 2004
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Ahlan W'sahlaan sadeequatee Wa asdequa. I'm still in Fez A humdulilah. Private Arabic lessons, I've decided, are the way to go. Mustapha comes to my house at 9 and makes me talk for 3 hours straight non-stop, no mistakes tolerated. I don't have to commute, I get more attention and learn faster, and its cheaper than school too. I'll still probably go back to the school in January for one more 6 week course if only to be part of the social scene there, then its private lessons exclusively until I feel like I can take the final class and get my diploma or certificate, or whatever they give here.
Arabic, I've decided, is not impossible to learn, though some have told me otherwise. There are however some major difficulties involved (those who have no need of a language lessons may skip the rest of this email).
-Arabic sounds are completely different from English sounds. Some of our sounds make no appearance whatsoever in Arabic ('v' 'g'), and some of the sounds that we consider the same are represented by two different letters entirely. The hard 'th' sound in 'this' and the soft 'th' in 'through' for example are two completely different letters in Arabic, and there are two similar but deeper sounds that we don't have at all in our language.
-Arabic has several common synonyms for every word. There are at least nine unrelated words for 'lion', and common words such as 'tommorow' and 'I have' have several different interchangeable synonyms. 'I have' is not actually even a verb, but rather a preposition ("The car is had by me").
-Almost all plurals are irregular. We have some broken plurals (goose / geese, man / men) in English, but most are formed just by tacking an 's' on the end of whatever word. In Arabic, they are ALL irregular, not only the nouns, but the ADJECTIVES also (which must match in number and gender). This means there are different words for adjectives like 'beautiful' depending on whether you are talking about one, two or many beautiful objects.
-Arabic has an entire tense for dual nouns, verbs and adjectives. In English, we say "The big man talks to his beautiful wife" in the singular and "The big men talk to their beautiful wives" in the plural. Arabic has these two modes, but also a third entirely different mode for TWO men as opposed to 1, or 3 or more. In this sentence the subject 'men', the verb 'talk' the adjectives 'big' and 'beautiful' and the object 'wife' are all different words in the dual than they are in the plural or singular.
-Arabic has additional conjugations for feminine subjects in the second and third person. Words like 'you' (single, dual and plural) and 'they' have different pronouns depending on whether you're talking about men or women (or masculine and feminine objects) and the verbs have different endings. This gives Arabic a total of 15 cases as opposed to only 6 in English.
-Arabic has 15 different conjugation patterns which differ in past and present (so 30 really). English is easy with only one irregual verb in the present (to be) and a handful of irregulars in the past (I went, I built, I found etc.) But Arabic has 15 large verb tables that must be memorized for all 15 modes in both tenses. This is complicated by vowels that dissapear and other oddities also.
-Arabic is a declinated language. While the declenchens aren't necessary in speech they are vital for any serious student learning to read (especialy for the poetry and the Qur'an). What this means is that words have different endings depending on whether they are the subject (genetive case), direct object (accusative case) or indirect object (genetive case) in a sentence. In the sentence "The man saw me" the word 'man' has a different ending than in the sentence "I saw the man" because it's a different part of speech. The declenchens also change depending on whether the word in definate ("the man") or indefinate ("a man"). Therefore, the sentances "I saw the man", "I saw a man", "The man saw me", "A man saw me", "I gave it to a man", and "I gave it to the man" use 6 different words for 'man'!
-Arabic has dozens of differing dialects. I'm learning FusHa (modern standard Arabic) which is a contrived language that's only used for the writing and the news. Its not a spoken language anywhere on earth and only a small percentage of the Arab population speaks it properly. The diriga they speak here in Morocco is practicaly a different language as is Egyptian Arabic, Levantine Arabic, Gulf Arabic etc. When I reach the point where I can read a newspaper and understand the newscast, I'll probably have to move to Egypt or the Levant to learn to speak a real dialect. Moroccan colloquial is the least universaly understood of all the dialects because its full of French and Berber words. Trying to order lunch in Moroccan Arabic in Cairo or Dubai would be like going to London and saying "Ya'll ain't gotta helpin' a grits do ya?". With the proper FusHa I'm learning now, its more like "I have a great hunger for the victuals that thou might have for thus". Even the numbers are different.

There are of course some things that are much easier in Arabic. For instance, there are only 3 real tenses: past, present and imperative. The future is formed by adding a single letter, so that's a piece of cake. English on the contrary has at least 13 by my count (I go, I'm going, I went, I was going, I have gone, I have been going, I had gone, I had been going, I will go, I will be going, I will have gone, I will have been going, go!) plus several almost-tenses (I'm going to go, I used to go). None of this exists in Arabic Al humdulilah!
Arabic has only 2 sets of pronouns, subject and object. English has 4 "I, you, he..." "me, you, him..." "my, your, his,...." "mine, yours, his" and the pronouns for places and things are much easier than they are in French (though they do have to agree in gender).
The most interesting thing about Arabic is that every single word (except prepositions) is created from a three letter root. You can memorize a root, for instance 'drs' ('study') and by adding vowels, suffexes and prefixes you get verbs like 'study' and 'teach' and 'be taught' nouns like 'teacher' and 'school' and 'mosque', adjectives like 'smart', superlatives like 'most studied' and 'least studied', comparatives like 'more studied' and 'less studied' etc. This means if I see words I've never seen before I can figure them out, often just be boiling them down to a three letter root and then figuring out what's been added. Anyway, I still have much to learn... several years worth really. They say Arabic taked four times as much practice as say French or Spanish for an English speaker and i can see why. The US is turning out an average of less than a hundred competant Arabic speakers from her universities her year. Sorry to bore you all. See you soon.


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